Most pastors will tell you that preaching on the big holidays is difficult. First of all, the pressure is high. Attendance is larger than usual with lots of visitors, so it’s important to give a good sermon . . .or at least not put anyone to sleep. Second, preaching on big holidays is hard because you already know the stories. On Christmas Eve, you like to hear the scripture again, perhaps even enjoy seeing how much of Luke 2 you know by heart. But are you expecting me to say something new about the story? Am I supposed to say something about baby Jesus that you haven’t heard before? Same is true at Easter. You know the story. What new can I say?
Well, today feels like Christmas or Easter. I’ve been building up this service for a couple of weeks—encouraging you to come and bring friends, and I want the service to inspire you to participate in our “Jesus built bridges” event this afternoon, but also to inspire you in all your work for justice. So now you’re here, and I’m supposed to deliver a rousing sermon on inclusion, and I’m preaching to the choir. If I said, “We need to work for justice,” you would say, “We know!”
All of this started with a postcard. I saw Franklin Graham’s picture on it and almost threw it directly in recycling. I know his reputation. He has done some good things, but he also makes repeated statements that are anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ. He preaches that we are not acceptable to God as we are—we have to be changed in order for God to forgive us. I know firsthand the damage that his kind of theology can do. But I saw that he was coming to Portland and I thought, “This is the perfect time for progressive Christians to stand up. For too long we have let our conservative siblings in Christ own the microphone. We need to be communicating the inclusive love of Christ, and this is the perfect opportunity.” So I gathered a group of progressive clergy to talk about a response to Franklin Graham’s rally here in our area. As often happens when you gather a group of clergy, we had 10 people and 13 opinions. We need to protest Franklin Graham. No, not him personally; we need to protest his theology. No, we’re not protesting anything—we’re just communicating an alternative. The event should be interfaith. No, this is a family issue; we shouldn’t ask our interfaith colleagues to confront our crazy uncle! Ahhh, being ecumenical is hard work!
Finally, we agreed on the response. We would create a logo and theme to be used in all of our churches, with a special justice-focused worship in the morning. Then we would gather on the bridge at 5:30 to hold signs and banners and demonstrate to passersby (and, we hope, the media) that there is a different kind of Christianity—a Christianity of inclusion and welcome, of mercy and justice. And out of that plan to meet on the bridge came the theme “Jesus built bridges.”
But when it came time to plan worship I remembered that Jesus didn’t always build bridges. Listen to these excerpts from Matthew 23:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees . . . tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.… Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead.”
Way to go building bridges, Jesus! There is nothing like reaching out to others . . .by calling them hypocrites, blind guides, and whitewashed tombs! You know, Jesus, that wasn’t very nice. You may be the Christ, but you’re not always very “Christian!”
So what are we to do as modern day Christians? The scribes and Pharisees were trying to be faithful to God. They were going about it the wrong way, and their motives were not always pure. But they thought they were being faithful, and Jesus called them out. Conservative Christians are also trying to be faithful. I think they are going about it the wrong way, and their motives are not always pure. But they think they are being faithful. So do we follow in the ways of Jesus and stand up to them and say, “Woe to you, Christians, you hypocrites!” I don’t think that’s the tone we want to take. As much as we talk about being like Jesus, we aren’t Jesus! We aren’t living in his time, and more importantly, we don’t know people’s hearts.
But this lesson is relevant to us because Jesus clearly demonstrates two things: First, that he was unafraid to speak out even to those within his own religion, and second, Jesus spoke out because people were being hurt by religion. Jesus knew what he was doing, and he knew the risk he was taking. At the time of this story, according to the Book of Matthew, he was heading into his final days. He knew that the powerful religious leaders of the day were out to get him. In the previous chapter the scribes and Pharisees had tried to entrap him, tried to trick him into saying something they could use against him. But he didn’t back down because he believed this group of people within Judaism was hurting others with their strict interpretations and legalistic views.
So I do believe it is our responsibility to call out other Christians when we think the same thing is happening again. Jesus may not have “built bridges” to the religious leaders of his day, but he most certainly built bridges for those on the margins. He built bridges for them to move from isolation into relationship, from segregation into community. He built pathways for the disenfranchised to return to God. He made a way for those in need. Our motivation must be concern for others. Our goal must be to share God’s love.
And we have to watch our tone. In this same speech where Jesus says “Woe to you hypocrites,” Jesus also cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Ultimately, it’s all about the love. Or we are just a clanging gong and a clashing cymbal.
Micah 6:6-8 is very instructive in this way. The writer asks:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I know you could have quoted that last line with me if I’d asked. It’s a favorite verse in the world of progressive Christianity and Judaism. And I’m back to where I started—that I’m preaching to the choir. I’m talking to people who already agree with me. But a few months ago Jill Saxby and Women in Harmony introduced me to a song with a great message. The group Emma’s Revolution sings:
“Has anybody seen the choir? I want to preach to the converted.
I want to see them rising up, don’t wanna see one gaze averted.
Don’t wanna have to prove a point, just want to know they’re on my side.
Just wanna smile and inspire. Has anybody seen the choir?
Has anybody seen the church? Maybe that’s where I can find them—
standing tall against the fray, strength and unity behind them.
Have they gathered at the river; are they washed upon the shore?
Have they set the world on fire? Has anybody seen the choir?”
You know, we preachers preach to the choir because the choir needs to be encouraged. The choir needs to be inspired. The choir needs to be reminded why we sing. I don’t preach about justice because you don’t know. I preach about justice because we are the choir and we need to sing! Your response when I preach about justice isn’t “We know!” Your response is “We will!” or “We do!” So I’m going to ask you:
Do you care about the hungry? If so, answer “We do!”
Do you care about gay and lesbian people? (We do!)
Do you care about asylum seekers and refugees?
Do you want transgender people to be able to live their authentic lives?
Do you believe in freedom of religion and freedom from other people’s religion?
Do you care about all God’s children?
Indeed, we do.
I preach on scriptures you already know about justice for the same reason that I preach the familiar stories on Christmas and Easter . . .not because we don’t know them, but because we need to experience them again. We need to experience the wonder of a birth that will change our hearts. We need to experience the wonder of resurrection that will change our souls. And we need to experience the wonder of justice that will change our world. Singing God’s inclusive love and justice takes us from “We know!” It moves us through “We do!” It takes us straight to “We are!”
Answer me now:
Who are God’s hands and feet at work in the world? (We are!)
Who are the ones who will hammer out a warning?
Who are the ones who will help others lay down their burdens?
Who is in the choir?
It’s time to sing!